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UK needs a new 'Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme' now, not post-Brexit

UK needs a new 'Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme' now, not post-Brexit
3 min read

Faversham and Mid Kent MP Helen Whately calls on the Government to introduce a new Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme [SAWS] after the previous one was abolished in 2013 or face seeing many British farmers going out of business.

Cherries for sale on the roadside, fields full of strawberries, trees laden with sweet apples and juicy pears – these are all part of the romantic image of Kent as the Garden of England. But while we may romanticise fruit farming, the reality is, it’s a tough, competitive business – and getting tougher.

British growers have benefitted from people looking to eat more healthily, notching up their ‘five a day’. That resulted in increased volumes and incomes for fruit farmers a few years ago, but recently the tide has turned. While supermarkets keep prices more or less static, costs have gone up. In the last five years, profits have been squeezed. Half of fruit farms are making less than 2% margin, and fruit farmers’ incomes have fallen by 43% over the last five years.

Speaking to farmers in my constituency in Kent, I know that opinions were split over Brexit. However, even those who voted to Leave worry about the impact of the referendum on their workforce. The horticulture industry needs thousands of seasonal workers every year, to pick and pack their produce. The British Growers Association estimates that the industry employed 80,000 seasonal workers this year. A vast majority of these workers come from the European Union. They do demanding and difficult work, hand-picking and hand-packing fruit. The days of fruit picking being a holiday job for students are long gone. Supermarkets demand impeccable quality and consistency, and picking at a rate that requires workers who are experienced and physically fit. Farmers in my constituency have tried to recruit locally, but it hasn’t worked – not least because unemployment is low and there simply aren’t enough people looking for work.

The referendum result was decisive and rightly the Government plans to negotiate a Brexit deal which controls free movement. However, this does present a challenge for an industry which relies on seasonal labour from the EU.  

Therefore, as Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Fruit and Vegetable Farmers, I am asking the Government to pilot a new Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme [SAWS]. We used to have one until its abolition in 2013 and similar schemes exist in other OECD countries including New Zealand, Canada, the US and Australia.

SAWS used to work well. It had robust entry and exit checks which meant that over 98% of those who came to work in the UK returned home, and therefore did not count towards immigration figures. So this should not be seen as part of the wider debate on immigration.  

Nor should we wait until after we’ve left the EU. The fruit picking workforce are already thinking twice about coming to the UK. Recruitment for next year has plummeted. Some farmers have told me they are likely to go out of business, and that there is a genuine risk of British fruit going unpicked next year because of a shortage of labour.

This is a sector where we are arguably the best in the world. I don’t think anywhere can beat the quality of a British strawberry. Yet a shortage of farm workers means we may soon see British produce replaced by imports. That’s why we need a new Seasonal Agricultural Workers scheme.

Helen Whately is the Conservative MP for Faversham and Mid Kent. She is Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Fruit and Vegetable Farmers.

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